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US blinks but Pakistan won't celebrate

July 05, 2012 15:07 IST
Pakistan's decision to reopen transit routes for Nato convoys holds big implications for the future trajectory of the US-Pakistan relationship and regional security -- and for Pakistan's domestic politics, says MK Bhadrakumar

After months of tortuous negotiations with the United States, Pakistan has reopened the transit routes for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation convoys heading toward Afghanistan. The US rendered an apology, finally, for its massacre of 27 Pakistani soldiers in a military strike last November, which precipitated the closure of the transit routes and triggered the unprecedented crisis in the relationship.

Washington first deputed its commander in Afghanistan Gen John Allen to visit Rawalpindi and sheepishly render a "soft" apology, but was apparently rebuffed by the Pakistani army chief Parvez Kayani -- whereupon, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stepped in and rendered a high grade apology. (A "presidential" apology at Barack Obama's level was unlikely and unwise in the midst of a tight election campaign in the US.)

If there is triumphalism in Pakistan that the US blinked, Islamabad isn't showing it. Actually, the Pakistani leadership is in no mood to celebrate. The military hasn't said a word so far. Meanwhile, it transpires that Pakistan has also conveyed to the US that its transit routes through Pakistan will continue to be gratis – without transit fee. Much remains unclear.

The Pentagon and the NATO headquarters in Brussels will heave a big sigh of relief. The drawdown of western troops from Afghanistan can now begin in right earnest. Quite obviously, the Pakistani transit routes will be the US's preferred option because Pakistan is an old ally and the two countries know how to transact business and the Pakistani route is also by far economical.

On the contrary, there will be a sense of disappointment in the Central Asian capitals. Did President Islam Karimov overreach by pushing the Pentagon too hard? Surely, Tashkent's bargaining power offering itself as a transit hub and/or gateway to the Northern Distribution Network gets weakened. The Pentagon can now negotiate from a position of strength. Simply put, the US's dependence on the NDN at exorbitantly high cost is no more as desperate as it seemed only last week. But these are mere sideshows.

Feeling rudderless

The main thing is that the decision taken in Islamabad holds big implications for the future trajectory of the US-Pakistan relationship and regional security -- and for Pakistan's domestic politics.

The Pakistani civilian leadership will claim that it stood up to the US's bullying. Washington alternatively threatened and cajoled Pakistan by deploying every trick in the game, including an unrelenting "psywar" aimed to disorient the leadership in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. The US repeatedly tried to divide the civilian and military leaderships in Pakistan. Most certainly, Washington kept encouraging India to step up pressure on the Pakistani security establishment on the contentious issue of the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai on the basis of fresh evidence given by a suspected militant who was deported to Delhi last week by the Saudi authorities at the behest of the US. 

As time passed, Pakistani political elites were feeling rudderless without the US backing and felt caught between the rock and a hard place – US pressure from one side and the military threat to destabilise the civilian government on the other side. The Pakistani elites have no real hopes of China replacing the US as their benefactor. The reality check further prompted them to begin the arduous search for an amicable solution to the tensions with the US. 

The Pakistani economy is in dire straits and the infusion of American aid is a critical necessity. The Pentagon has reportedly agreed to release about $1.1 billion to the Pakistani military as "reimbursement" for its counter-insurgency operations. All in all, Washington has stuck a deal with the Pakistani political leadership, the exact terms of which will probably never be revealed.

From the American viewpoint, the entire experience of the past seven months showed beyond doubt that given the extreme nature of the crisis in Afghanistan, Pakistan is a virtually irreplaceable partner for the foreseeable future. How this realisation pans out will be keenly watched.

The heart of the matter is that the US drawdown from Afghanistan and the envisaged "transition" through 2013 and even the post-2014 scenario -- all these are predicated one way or another on a broad understanding being reached with the Taliban.

The manner in which the US-Taliban contacts simply tapered off once the US-Pakistan ties became rocky last November underscored that there is a direct linkage between the two tracks. It cannot be lost on Washington that Pakistan controls the Taliban and can allow the Taliban to enter into peace talks with the US and it can as well suspend the talks when it wants and can summarily reopen the talks when it feels like it.

Clinton hailed the Pakistani decision to reopen the transit routes and to provide gratis facility as "a tangible demonstration of Pakistan's support for a secure, peaceful, and prosperous Afghanistan and our shared objectives in the region." The US commander in Afghanistan Gen Allen also said Islamabad's decision is a "demonstration of Pakistan's desire to secure a brighter future for both Afghanistan and the region at large. I look forward to future opportunities to work together toward our common goals, by taking coordinated action against terrorists."

Democracy in danger

So, are we witnessing a "reset" of the US-Pakistan relationship? In her "apology" statement, Clinton already began discussing the imperative of a "relationship that is enduring, strategic, and carefully defined, and that enhances the security and prosperity of both our nations and the region."

However, the rhetoric is all on the part of the US. All that the Pakistani ambassador to the US was prepared to say was that Pakistan appreciated Clinton's statement and hoped that the bilateral ties "can move to a better place from here." The newly appointed Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, was manifestly defensive when he argued, "The continued closure of supply lines not only impinges on our relationship with the US, but also on our relations with the 49 other member states of NATO/ISAF. Eventual exit, exit of international forces from Afghanistan is in the interest of longer term peace and stability in the region, and Pakistan should be seen as a responsible and cooperative member of the international community."

On the contrary, the Islamic parties who enjoy the patronage of the army are voicing strong criticism of the government decision. The main opposition party Muslim League-Nawaz keeps an ambivalent position, watching which way the wind is blowing. Former spy chief Hamid Gul termed the government decision a "conspiracy" and other elements known to be close to the security establishment also condemned the government decision as a sell-out.

These are straws in the wind but they signal that the Pakistani military would probably like to refrain from publicly identifying with the government decision to normalise with the US -- although Kayani attended the meeting of the Defence committee of the cabinet that decided on the reopening of transit routes. The military will factor in the popular mood, which is overwhelmingly "anti-American."

If so, the more the things seem to change in the US-Pakistan relationship, the more they may remain the same. The fundamental contradiction continues, namely, the US and Pakistan are not on the same page on Afghanistan -- and both sides know it. One real danger could be for the future of Pakistan's democracy -- that is, if the civilian leadership puts itself out on a limb against the strong current of public opinion and is perceived, in turn, as having stuck a Faustian deal with the US.

MK Bhadrakumar